When the New England Patriots 2017 schedule was released, I immediately called it “preposterous and stupid.” The response to that claim on Twitter pretty much consisted of Patriots fans saying, “Bill Belichick doesn’t care,” or fans of other teams saying, “stop being a baby,” with one person saying, “I didn’t hear you complain when other teams had a similar schedule.”
Well, let’s break this down.
My first point was that the Patriots should play the Steelers and Saints in prime time instead of at 4:25 PM and 1:00 PM , respectively, which isn’t really a complaint about the difficulty of the scheduling, and more just a highlight of the league’s missed opportunity.
The other four points deserve further scrutiny.
Note: On the road for five of six games from week 10 through week 15.
It’s important to highlight how rare this string of road games is in the history of the league. Over the past decade, just one other team has played five of six weeks on the road after week 10 and just one other team has played five of six weeks on the road at any point in the season:
2008 Baltimore Ravens (week 6-11): The Ravens went 4-2 over this span and finished the regular season 11-5, ultimately losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship Game. Had a brutal bye in week 2.
The league makes an attempt to avoid playing three games in a row either on the road or at home, so for five of six games to all take place on the road, there has to be an issue with the scheduling calculus.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Patriots actually requested this scheduling quirk since playing consecutive weeks in high altitude is probably better than splitting them up and having to re-adjust to the altitude.
The Raiders will be coming off a bye week, just like they did last season when they “hosted” the Houston Texans in Mexico City; the Texans were not coming off a bye week and were actually playing four out of five games on the road.
Estadio Azteca in Mexico City is actually 2,100 more feet above sea level than Mile High Stadium, so the Patriots will have to make sure their conditioning is in peak form. Maybe they’ll use their bye week to do some altitude training.
Speaking of bye weeks, the Patriots are one of seven teams to have multiple games against teams coming off bye weeks. Eleven teams have zero games against opponents coming off bye weeks.
Note: Five of six final games against divisional opponents.
The Patriots close out the final six weeks of the season with five games against the Dolphins (two in three weeks), the Bills (two in four weeks), and the Jets. This is also an extremely unique situation as just three teams in the past decade have finished the season with five of six games against divisional opponents:
2010 Tennessee Titans: The Titans were 5-5 heading into the final stretch and went 1-5 over the final six weeks of the season, with just one win against the Texans. Collapse led to dismissal of head coach Jeff Fisher, so it wasn’t all bad.
2011 Cleveland Browns: The Browns were 4-6 heading into the final stretch and went 0-6 over the final six weeks of the season, with an extra loss against the Arizona Cardinals in overtime. The Browns did not make the playoffs.
2014 Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks were 6-4 heading into the final stretch and went 6-0 over the final six weeks, with an extra win over the Philadelphia Eagles. The Seahawks reached the Super Bowl, but ultimately lost to the Patriots.
Before the Seahawks, the last team to finish the season with five of six games against divisional opponents to reach the playoffs were the 2001 St. Louis Rams, who coincidentally also lost in the Super Bowl to the Patriots.
Note: Final eight games are against high-leverage opponents.
In addition to five games against the AFC East, the Patriots other three games after the bye come against the Broncos (Super Bowl L champions), the Raiders, and the Steelers. These are arguably the best teams in the AFC, other than the Patriots, and will be vying for the Super Bowl title.
Facing eight teams in the same conference to close out the year isn’t that rare; it has happened 13 times over the past decade, including four times in 2013 (Broncos, Seahawks, 49ers, Saints).
But facing all four of the out-of-conference opponents in the first seven weeks has happened just three times in the past decade. The 2009 Kansas City Chiefs faced the NFC East in consecutive weeks (weeks 3-6); the 2012 Atlanta Falcons faced all four AFC West opponents by week 6; and the 2013 Seattle Seahawks faced the AFC South in consecutive weeks (weeks 3-6).
The 2009 Indianapolis Colts played all four of their games against the NFC West by week 8, but had an early bye week and finished their NFC games by their seventh game.
You’ll note that all four of these times included a western division- either a western team, or facing a western division. This could make sense for the ease of the team, just like the Patriots playing back-to-back altitude games. But the Patriots are facing the NFC South- there isn’t a travel advantage to be had.
Instead, the Patriots schedule is just a wonky mess that is ridiculous not for the difficulty, but because it’s just so poorly structured. Having to face a divisional in five of the final six weeks takes away a lot of the excitement of seeing how teams change over the course of the year, while having five of six games on the road seems like a just a poor scheduling mishap.
The Patriots will face whichever team they have to and they’ll probably have a lot of success- but their schedule still looks like a mess.